Depressing and Riveting Emergencies

During the 1930s and 1940s, two different emergencies drastically altered women’s roles in the United States.  The first emergency, The Great Depression, urged women out of the workforce and into the home (despite the number of employed women rising).  The second emergency, World War II, spent four years pushing women into the workforce to fill the void left by male soldiers.

The Great Depression was an economic emergency that effectively ended the flapper culture of the 1920s (I missed a decade due to Sandy, sorry!).  Whereas in the ’20s, both men and women experienced a loosening of sexual mores and personal liberation, the stock market crash of 1929 sent the nation into a tight fiscal crisis.  People of both genders lost jobs.  And the message to women, in general, directed them to stay at home so that men could have a better chance at getting a job.  Men, as the breadwinners, needed their jobs to support their families, but women who worked for “pin money” ought to leave the salaries for men (of course, the “pin money” worker was a largely inaccurate stereotype).  The working woman was not respected by society at large because she was taking the labor that belonged to men.

Let my Daddy work!

 

Of course, women who worked during the Great Depression were not likely to be after economic independence and purchasing power.  They, like men who worked, were supporting their families, and women entered the work force at twice the rate of men.  Women did a wide variety of work throughout the Depression, including hosting boarders who could no longer afford to live on their own.  Women’s wages increased to 63% of men’s wages, even though the number of women in the workforce grew (usually the two were inversely related).  Due to the segregation of labor that had already existed, many women were able to stay in the workforce because men did not want to do “women’s work.”  So even though public opinion was against women workers, the Great Depression actually spurred more women into the workforce.

Famous migrant mother photo by Dorothea Lange

The only way to really break the Great Depression was to get involved in a World War.  And women, Uncle Sam needed you to fill the positions left vacant by young soldiers.  Check out this propaganda video scripted by Eleanor Roosevelt and narrated by Katharine Hepburn:

The natural skills of the homemaker, like sewing, can translate easily to industrial work, and since the lives of men depend on it, women are necessary for the war effort.  I particularly enjoyed the part about parachute production about five minutes into the video above; of course women are better at making a silk parachute!  They have those nimble lady-fingers, after all!

Sarcasm aside, the campaign to get women working during WWII used fierce amounts of propaganda.  If you weren’t working, as a woman, then you were not doing your patriotic duty. The labor of women became essential in making sure that the men overseas were well-equipped and protected.  This new breed of working women was championed by Rosie the Riveter.

Traditional Rosie poster

Another Rosie design

For a few short years, being a working woman was at the top of public opinion.  However, as soon as the war ended, women were expected to pack up and go home.  Those jobs that women had adopted naturally belonged to men.  Propaganda ads began telling women to quit their jobs and return home, when just a few years before, they had been urging women into the workforce.  Women were fired by droves in order to make way for male workers.  Rosie the Riveter and her sisters at work were pushed into memory.

Both of these two emergencies show one consistent theme.  When men leave the workplace, either through economic downturn or wartime soldiering, women quickly fill the gap.  But when men return to the work force, women are once again pushed out.

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Dear Women, Please Vote This Year

Last night, I attended a panel discussion on campus featuring four prominent professors and moderated by the provost on a few of the important issues in this year’s election (healthcare, the economy, morality in leadership).  The discussion itself was fun, and it was interesting to see gender and race divides so clearly (the two white male professors in almost constant opposition to the two minority female professors), but the overwhelming consensus between them was the importance of a voting decision.  Dr. Carol Awasu from Nyack College’s social work program encouraged audience members to vote.  If you are a woman, if you are a minority, if you don’t own property, she reminded the audience, you did not always have the right to vote, and so you should vote.  Vote, because people have died to secure the right for you.

Especially in this election, which is the most gender-divided election in recent history, everyone who is able to vote should be voting.  We owe it to our predecessors — to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, to Susan B. Anthony, to Alice Paul — to vote.  I almost don’t care who you vote for, so long as you vote (of course, I want people to vote my way, but I’d rather a fair exercise of free will than a bunch of people voting against conscience).

Susan B. Anthony

I think that’s what those wonderful suffragists would want to see: a fair exercise of free will.  That’s what they were after in pursuing equal suffrage.  As for how they would vote if they were alive today — I feel like my fair guess would be for Obama, and here’s why:

1) Party Allegiance would be inverted, and thus they would vote on principles as opposed to party.  After the Civil War, women’s suffrage split into two different camps, one aligning itself with the liberal Republicans and the other working to garner support from the more conservative Democrats.  Lucy Stone stuck with the Republican party, and those who followed suit worked to tie female suffrage with freedman (those who had until recently been slaves) suffrage, but when that move proved to be unsuccessful, they willingly took a back-burner position to freedman suffrage.  Now that women have the vote, a Republican suffragist from the mid-nineteenth century would likely choose to vote for Obama because of his egalitarian appeal and his insistence that female policymakers are necessary for appropriate lawmaking.  Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, frustrated by the sexism in the Republican party, broke off from their abolitionist roots and pursued a women’s rights platform through the Democratic party.  The Democrats, for the most part, were uninterested, but Stanton and Anthony persisted in their hunt for political equality in more than just the vote.  Fair pay, property ownership and child custody were also a part of their branch of the suffrage movement.  Stanton and Anthony would be drawn to Obama because of the Democratic Platform’s position on women.  All of these women would also be horrified by comments about rape that have come out of the Republican party during this election cycle (I’m looking at you, Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock).  Don’t worry, women; Obama doesn’t understand their comments, either.

Lucy Stone

2) The restriction of voting rights that this election cycle has seen are abhorrent and being repudiated by the Democratic party.  In case you’ve missed it, several state governments have either successfully or unsuccessfully been implementing new voter registration laws that require voters to have excessive and unnecessary amounts of identification in order to vote.  My home state of Pennsylvania is also guilty in this; I chose to register here in New York instead.  If Alice Paul were alive today, you can bet that she would be vocally opposing this from all sides, and as such, she would align herself with today’s Democratic party.  Voting rights are an important part of the Democratic position, and the legislators who are creating the new voter id laws have largely been Republican.  Think I’m inflating things?  Check out this surprisingly astute Sarah Silverman video on voter id laws (my apologies for the profanity, if you find profanity an issue):

3) Obama signed the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act; Republicans voted almost unanimously against it.  Look at the vote results from the Senate on the 2009 act.  Of the 61 senators that voted in favor of Lily Ledbetter, only two of them were Republicans; however, of the 36 senators that voted against it, all of them were Republicans.  On top of that, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney did not support the Lily Ledbetter Act in 2009 and he would not have signed it.  Would Romney overturn it if he reaches office?  He says not, but early suffragists Anthony and Stanton would still be casting their vote with Obama because of this law.  Though Anthony’s faction of suffrage did grow toward favoring the white middle class, she made a few concerted efforts to mobilize working class women to demand suffrage and fair pay.  Toward the beginning of the film Iron Jawed Angels, the characters of Alice Paul and Lucy Burns advertise for suffrage amongst working class women, recruiting Ruza Wenclawska.  Wenclawska, a Polish immigrant who changed her name to Rose Winslow, began working as a mill girl at age eleven.  She would be voting for Obama.

Ruza Wenclawska, aka Rose Winslow

Ultimately, I think these women would encourage anyone on the fence about voting for either candidate to vote, no matter what.  But they would probably be voting for Barack Obama.

If Only Thieving Ladies Knew About Cheap Amusements

Last week, I posted about pre-1950s consumerism and the advent of shopping.  This was, I’m sure, a fun post for all involved, so I’m writing a follow-up, and we’re going to talk about class.

I learned about turn of the century consumer culture from these two books: When Ladies Go A-Thieving and Cheap Amusements.  Both books explore the leisure activities of urban women in the late 19th and early 20th century, however, they attack the topic from two different viewpoints, that of the middle class housewife and that of the working class woman.

When pre-made material goods became more and more prominent in the household, middle class women spent less and less time working to create things within the home.  Thus, shopping for these items became their job.  Shopping centers and department stores tailored themselves toward these female consumers — in an overwhelming way.  Brightly-colored advertisements and products crowded the cramped aisles and display tables.  Salespeople constantly accosted shoppers, encouraging them to try this or to buy that.  The atmosphere became one of hyperactivity designed to help shoppers lose control of their ability to discern a want from a need.  Maybe they even had an elephant in the store.

A Female Shoplifter!

Of course, this environment created a new wealth of social problems, namely shoplifting, and When Ladies Go A-Thieving tells this story.  Stealing and shoplifting were not new things, but for the upper and middle class housewife, they were.  Women would, in between a series of regular purchases, lift random items.  Perhaps a perfume bottle, perhaps clothing, perhaps an umbrella — anything small enough to be hidden was fair game.  Instead of convicting these women of theft, all too often they got away without any charges or charges that were dropped so quickly they must have been on fire.  Store managers valued the repeat business of the women enough to let little items go, and the threat of a woman losing her respectability left managers much more lenient with these shoplifters.  Especially since enough of them had the money to pay for their light-fingered grabs, this type of criminal deviance was medicalized, and kleptomania was born.

Kleptomania became the chief defense for thieving ladies, and its causes were much like those of hysteria (another “female mental health problem”).  Women in stores were constitutionally unable to withstand the pressure of advertising, thus they would temporarily lose their sanity and steal.  But kleptomania was a distinctly middle and upper class disease.  Working class women were too busy being awesome to bother with shoplifting.

In Cheap Amusements, the world of the working girl in New York City expands from the 27-hours-a-day sweatshop work that we generally tend to envision into a fast-paced and vibrant world of fun activities stuffed into the evening hours of the day.  The styles and consumer pushing that middle class women stole, working class women put on layaway.  They spent most of their time working, but in the time that was free, many working women began exploring different ways of having fun.

A popular choice was going out to Coney Island or Central park, which could be done with the whole family.  Or women might go out on dates with young men.  They might go dancing or to the movies with their friends.  Fashion in these settings was important.  Some working class women would stave off hunger by going out with men frequently, thus they could save their money for clothing.  Food was less important than fashion.  This was more difficult for women who were still living with their parents, because they were expected to give their pay envelopes to the family.

People in a dance hall! Having fun!

Of course, within the world of the working class woman, there were both natively born women and immigrants.  The working class held many different ethnic groups, and some of these groups deviated from the working class norm.  Irish immigrants (whose women were much more likely to be employed than their men) gravitated to the domestic work so often rejected by other working women.  Italian families kept their daughters under close watch; they were often not allowed to be out at night or to go out of the home by themselves.  Arranged marriages happened regularly among Italians and other groups still rooted firmly in the “old country.”

Community events like weddings or dances gave young women and men the chance to interact socially.  Dancing in particular became a hugely popular form of socializing for the working class.  As the decades surrounding the turn of the century progressed, dances became closer in contact and more risque.

Middle and upper class women labeled these working class dancers as loose and sexually promiscuous.  But perhaps if they had been able to join them and release some of their shopping tensions, they wouldn’t have lifted so many trivial things from the stores.

Witch People

Salem. March 1692.  Sarah Osborne, Sarah Good, and Tituba the slave are accused of witchcraft.  Both Sarahs claimed innocence, but Tituba confessed that “the Devil came to me and bid me serve him” (Find my source here!).  All three women were arrested.  The accusers — Elizabeth Parris, Abigail Williams, and Ann Putnam — were all under the age of twelve.

Salem Witch Trials, image borrowed politely from UMKC

After the three initial arrests in Salem, an epidemic of witchcraft trials flooded the town and surrounding region.  Even the four-year-old daughter of Sarah Good was accused; her testimony taken as evidence against her.  All told, twenty women were executed in Salem for witchcraft.  (Check out this other site from the University of Missouri – Kansas City)

But if they had had microcredit loans, they might have been able to stave off accusation.

CBS News reported back in 2009 about modern-day witch hunts in remote regions of India.  At the time of reporting, five people had recently been hacked to death for allegedly “practicing sorcery.”  Between 2004 and 2009, over 150 people had been killed under allegations of practicing witchcraft.

Sociologist Soma Chaudhuri from Michigan State University studied witch hunts in India for seven months, and one thing has seemed to work to dissuade witch accusations: microcredit loans.

Microcredit Group. Photo by Soma Chaudhuri, borrowed politely from Yahoo! News

Women in rural parts of India can apply for a low-interest, collateral free microcredit loan (equal to about $18) to start their own businesses.  Once involved in the loan program, women join a support group of other women who have started businesses.  A group of mobilized women can protect others from allegations of witch hunts.  Check what Yahoo! News has to say:

In one case documented in Chaudhuri’s study, a woman was accused of causing disease in livestock. Group members gathered in a vigil around her home and the home of the accuser. They stated their case to the accuser’s wife, who intervened. The accuser’s husband ultimately recanted his accusation and asked forgiveness.

Chaudhuri then goes on to say that the women involved in microcredit groups are able to resist the tradition of witch hunts because “they believe in the ideals of the microcredit group – in women’s development, family development and gender equality.”

Both the accusations of witchcraft in seventeenth century Salem and in twenty-first century India stem from heightened superstition and gender inequality.  The microcredit group that Chaudhuri observed in India is bringing balance and equality into the mix.  As empowered business owners, these women are able to stop witch hunts before they escalate into the mass chaos that defined Salem in 1692.